The deportation nightmare haunting the Dreamers of the US

For many Dreamers, the children of undocumented immigrants, America is the only home they have ever known. 

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Luisa Cuautle, a 22-year-old student at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, had never felt comfortable talking publicly about her precarious immigration status. But following Donald Trump’s election, she felt she had to speak out. Cuautle moved to the US from Mexico when she was two years old. She was brought to the country by her parents, both undocumented immigrants, who work as a cook and a nanny. A year and a half ago, Cuautle helped revive the Hunter Dream Team, a university group that supports undocumented students and “Dreamers”, like herself.

The Dreamers are migrants who were brought to the US illegally as children and who applied for renewable two-year work permits and protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a government programme introduced under Barack Obama in 2012.

Last year, the Trump administration rescinded Daca and announced that from 5 March 2018, the protections it offered to almost 800,000 people would begin to expire.

Since then, the Dreamers – who got their nickname from the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – have found themselves at the centre of a political impasse that shut down the US federal government for three days. The Democrats had refused to agree to a budget deal that did not offer permanent protection to the Dreamers. But on 22 January, they relented, agreeing to a short-term spending package to fund the government until 8 February in exchange for a pledge by Republicans to address the
fate of Daca recipients.

The Dreamers’ future remains uncertain. Whether they are offered a path to citizenship or if they start to face deportation will depend on the Democrats’ ability to negotiate with a Republican Party dominated by immigration hardliners, and a vacillating president.

For many Dreamers, the US is the only home they have ever known. “I grew up thinking that I was 100 per cent American and thinking I could do a lot of things,” Cuautle told me. “But I also grew up knowing that I had a status that other people didn’t have.”

Daca was introduced during her final year of high school and she hesitated for months before applying, having feared that she might place her family at risk of deportation by registering their details. She had been accepted into Hunter, but as an undocumented migrant she was not eligible for financial aid for her tuition fees.

With her Daca permit, she was able to get a job in a supermarket, a fast food restaurant and then a bank to fund her studies. She wants to become a physicians’ assistant. Her Daca permit will expire in two years.

As president of the Hunter Dream Team, Cuautle has joined Daca protests and lobbied politicians for immigration reform. “It’s just sad that politicians are playing with people’s lives and separating families,” she said. Her younger siblings are US citizens and she finds it too painful to follow the steady trickle of stories about families being torn apart by deportations. “I try not to focus too much on it, because if I did then I’d just be really angry and sad all the time, and that’s not how I want to live.”

One member of the Hunter Dream Team transferred to the college from a prestigious private university for which she had a full scholarship, because she wanted to be part of a student body with other undocumented students and active immigrants’ rights organisations.

The 21-year-old political science major, who I’ll call Maria, commutes to New York City from her conservative hometown in Long Island, where no one knows she is a Dreamer. “It’s an absolute secret that I am undocumented, I would never tell any of my friends at home for safety reasons,” she told me. Many of her friends and neighbours are Trump supporters and she fears that, should they learn her parents are undocumented, they might report her family to immigration agents.

Maria, who moved to the US from Chile when she was two, did not know that she was undocumented until she turned 16 and realised she did not have the paperwork to apply for a driving licence. She applied to Daca and it enabled her not just to learn to drive but to continue to conceal her immigration status.

Maria wants to attend graduate school so that she can practise public interest law. Her Daca protections are due to expire in October. “I try to stay as busy as possible, so I don’t consume myself with thinking about it,” she said. “I struggle with really bad anxiety. I think a lot of Dreamers suffer with some sort of mental illness because of everything we’ve gone through.”

Mirella Ramirez-Muñoz has only vague memories of how she entered the US at the age of eight. She remembers the heat, and how hard it was to walk for so many hours. Sometimes her uncle carried her, and once her mother asked her to run. She hadn’t understood that she was leaving Mexico and was disorientated to find herself surrounded by people whose language she could not understand. She struggled for her first few years at school in New York, where there was little support for pupils who could not speak English.

Ramirez-Muñoz is now 22 and a recent graduate in criminal justice and political science from City University. She hopes to go to law school and become an attorney. She is the vice-president of public relations for the CUNY Dreamers, a student-led advocacy and support group. Its role expanded following Trump’s decision to end Daca, as it rushed to make sure students renewed their permits while they still could. Ramirez-Muñoz’s Daca status expires in March 2019.

“The uncertainty is hard, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. I have so many things I want to accomplish, and it’s putting doubt in my mind over whether I can really stay here,” she told me. “If no permanent solution is found it’s important to know that we’ve done such great things with our Daca, and we’ll continue to do so.” 

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration